Judy Cooper grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Florence. She taught composition and literature for many years at Northern Kentucky University. She has published short stories in Kudzu, Appalachian Heritage and Motif v1: Writing by Ear; An Anthology of Writings about Music. She is currently working on a novel.
I stood at the back door of my mother’s house and watched a storm crawling over the mountain. The sky was blurred purple; up on the summit it was raining where rocks snagged the clouds. I wished I were up there bathing in the rain, rather than sweating in the heat-soaked valley.
“Belinda.” My mother’s voice was hoarse, urgent. “I want my lunch now.”
She was my sole reason for being there, back in the Appalachians after nearly forty years of parole. “Sure, Mom. But I’m Alice, not Aunt Belinda.” I stepped into the weary kitchen. Yellowed paint, cracked linoleum, swollen cabinet doors. I opened the refrigerator. “Egg salad,” I said. “Just what you said you wanted.”
She sat at the kitchen table, her clawed fingers resting on the dull edge of the fifties formica. I could see pink scalp through her thin white hair, hair that she wouldn’t let me wash, no matter how much I tried to trick her into the shower. She had on the same gray polyester slacks and pink shirt she’d worn the entire time I’d been there. At night I sneaked into her bedroom to wash them, feeling like I had when I was a teenager, always scrubbing away some minor crime in secret.
“I don’t eat egg salad,” she said. She intended her posture to be erect, but her shoulders folded over her thin chest. “You should know that, Belinda.”
“I’m your daughter Alice, Mom. Aunt Belinda’s been dead for ten years.” I spread mashed eggs on soft white bread and cut the sandwich into four squares. “You’ve always liked egg salad.”
Her eyes were still deep blue but revealed no soul. She heard the word “dead,” and it had some kind of meaning for her but not in any specific way. “Where is Belinda, then?” she asked. A gnarled forefinger reached out and touched the foamy bread like it was the fur of an animal.
I poured sweet tea for both of us. “Belinda’s buried up at Clover Hill Baptist Cemetery. I could drive you up there if you wanted.” I sat next to her, ready to catch her tea glass or cut her sandwich into even smaller pieces. “Eat, Mom.”
“I never go out,” she announced in the same strong voice she’d always used to make pronouncements. As long as I could remember, she’d lived in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Nothing pleased her because she had an unfathomable set of rules, ones she lived by but never revealed to any of us. It guaranteed that we all came up short.
The kitchen was dim and hot. “It’s going to storm,” I said. “Try your sandwich.”
She condescended to taking a bite that she chewed and chewed. “Swallow,” I said. “Maybe the rain will cool things down.”
She’d never allowed us to put in air conditioning. My brother, sister, and I had begged her for years to let us pay for the installation. “Too expensive to run,” she’d said, and when we offered to pay her electric bills, she’d rolled her eyes. “Fans are fine,” she’d said. One whirred behind my head, stirring air as sluggish as bread dough. I’d always enjoyed the somnolence of summer fans, the dull noise of them, the feeling of acceptable listlessness. Here I felt like my very pores were exhausted from sweating.
I coaxed her into eating three of the squares, but she declared that she was too tired to eat any more. She wanted to sleep, she said. I hovered as she walked back to her bedroom, little scatter rugs as hazardous as land mines on the slick vinyl floor. I helped her get her shoes off; she couldn’t even figure out the velcro closings any more. But when she asked for a quilt, I protested. “It’s stifling in here, Mom. You don’t need covers.” She wouldn’t permit a fan in her room. Said people caught colds from sleeping with a fan blowing on them.
“I always sleep with a quilt,” she said.
She hadn’t yesterday, but it wasn’t worth an argument. I spread a tattered quilt over her and left the room. Most days I had an hour or two of peace while she napped. Nights were different. She often confused days with nights, and the long summer evenings didn’t help. I walked into the front room, decorated much as it had been when I left for college. Under my purse on the sofa were papers from the nursing home. I’d driven over to Ashton yesterday and seen the facility. My brother Duke had stayed with Mom, but he didn’t know that I was going to the nursing home. I’d told him that I needed a little break, and, to make him think I was simply driving around the county, I stopped by a fruit stand to buy vegetables on my way home.
I took the brochure and papers to the kitchen to read them again but set them down instead. I wanted to watch the storm make its way into the valley. I stood at the screen door and looked out at the backyard, as tangled and unkempt as morning hair. Duke’s son was supposed to come tomorrow to mow it. There wasn’t a whisper of a breeze, although the mimosa tree, in full plumage just then, seemed to be trembling in anticipation of the storm.
The porch was an addition, just like the bedroom I’d once shared with my younger sister Cindy. What was now the kitchen had been a porch when the house was built. I had a vague memory of playing in sawdust and torn boards while the addition was being built. A few years later, Dad enclosed the porch, putting up a roof and half-walls and screening the rest. In the fall, he’d stretched plastic over the screens and nailed it up against winter. I remember him searching out the same nail holes to use year after year. The enclosed back porch became a repository for boots and brooms, canned goods and chicken feed. It seemed to me that I could still smell chickens on the airless porch: their feed, their droppings out in the yard, their musty coops. I remembered Mom killing hens to fry, the violent scents of blood and singed pinfeathers. I would run to the farthest corner of the house and bury my head in a pillow to escape the odor.
Duke was dead set against putting Mom in a nursing home even though he and his wife had borne the brunt of her care since the dementia set in. Taking turns stopping by, sending their teenaged children to sit with Mom an hour here and there, they’d pieced together enough supervision to make do for a while. Then one of the neighbors spied Mom digging in her long-forsaken garden at midnight, and Duke called me, managing to transmit guilt along telephone lines stretching two hundred and fifty miles. I’d suggested that they hire someone to stay nights. I’d help with the cost. Our baby sister Cindy, even farther away in Missouri, said she would chip in too. But few people would take on that kind of work any more, even in the country. Duke hired one woman, but she stole food from Mom’s freezer, and he fired her. Another woman quit after two weeks, saying she could make more at the nursing home. Ironic. But Duke wouldn’t budge. He called me again, and I’d promised him two weeks. He’d talked me into three.
There was a gust of wind, cool as an opened refrigerator. The mimosa blossoms shook like a clutch of feather dusters, and a door on the old chicken coop creaked. I’d already read the papers from the nursing home. I’d talked with the social worker. The cost would beggar Duke, Cindy, and me if we tried to pay for Mom. The social worker had pitched confusing numbers and regulations at me as fast as baseballs: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. The bottom line was that we’d be throwing Mom on the mercy of the state. A strained mercy, I was sure, but I couldn’t stay down here forever. No. I wouldn’t.
Suddenly, flat drops of rain pelted the yard, and I rushed to close windows. In my old bedroom, I threw a towel on the floor under the single window, leaving it open, hoping to collect the cool air and keep it until bedtime. Next to my bed were my travel books, ones on the British Isles and France, Germany and Italy. For thirty years I’d taught high school art and promised myself that someday I’d see the paintings printed in the textbooks for real. I’d view the scenes that had inspired the great painters. At my retirement party, the teachers at my school had given me luggage and made me a giant-sized fake passport. For thirty years, I’d taught with the flu, dealt with recalcitrant students, and survived thirty years of tedious repetition by dreaming up itineraries. When Duke called me to come stay with Mom, I’d packed my travel books along with my clothes.
Turning away from the back door, I found a battered colander and started breaking up the pole beans I’d bought the day before. I hadn’t fixed beans in years, but between Duke, Cindy, and me, I bet we’d snapped a thousand bushels of them when we were kids. The lazy, juicy pops of the pods took me right back to when I was a girl, living in this same house and wanting just as badly to leave it. I was the oldest. I was the one who’d had to plow every field of freedom, break every path of independence. When I’d asked to go away to college, Mom had said she wanted me at home. Dad never uttered a word, one way or the other. She’d said that if I really thought I needed a college education, I should drive over the mountain and go to school nearby. I refused and ended up going to the state university, miles away, paying every penny of the expenses myself and getting no encouragement from home. After I finally graduated, she’d just shrugged when I said I was taking a job up in the city. It was different for the other two. Duke was a boy, plus he’d never wanted to leave. Nobody had questioned any decision he’d ever made. And Cindy, well, she’d gone even farther away to college and to live, but that was all right because I’d already done it, and, besides, she’d married and had two kids. Every time she came home, and it wasn’t often, her visits were celebrated like Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.
Thunder pierced the muffled kitchen, and I heard Mom yelling from the bedroom. “Cindy! Cindy, go find your father.”
I tiptoed to the bedroom, hoping to soothe my mother back to sleep. “Cindy’s not here, Mom,” I murmured. “Go back to sleep.”
She lay still, hunched under her quilt, but her eyes glittered. “Tell her to go find Jack,” she insisted. “He’s probably out drinking with that whore.” She pronounced it hoor.
I’d heard this a couple of times while I’d been there. Giggled at it. The thought of my Bible-reading, soft-spoken father drinking and womanizing was beyond my comprehension. “Hush, Mom. Dad’s not out drinking.” I didn’t want to upset her even more, so I held back from saying that he’d been dead for six years.
She glared at me but let out a big whoosh of a sigh and closed her eyes. I went back to my beans.
The rain was coming down in gusty, gray veils, swirling around the yard and twisting into the trees. I remembered the time I came home my sophomore year. I didn't leave school much, except for Christmas and maybe a week in the summers. It cost money to ride Greyhounds, and I was always afraid I’d lose whatever job I had at the moment if I asked off. “Dad,” I’d said that Christmas. “Do you think you could manage to send me twenty dollars a month? I’m having a hard time.”
He’d picked me up at the bus stop in Ashton and was driving me home in his old pickup. He never took his eyes off the road. “Don’t you have a job?” he asked. His gnarled fingers curled around the steering wheel. I’d made him nervous.
“I have two jobs, Dad: one at the college library and another at the hospital, but both part-time. I have to go to classes. I have to study some time. Part-time jobs don’t pay much.” I’d figured this was the only time I’d have him to myself the three days I was home.
“Well, I don’t know,” he’d said. “Twenty a month would make a difference?”
Oh, God. At that point, ten would’ve made a difference. My hospital job entailed delivering and picking up breakfast trays to patients, and how happy I was when there was a mix-up and one of them had already left or gone to surgery. I ate every bit of those forgotten breakfasts.
“It sure would,” I’d said.
He was silent for at least a mile. “Well, I’ll have to ask your mother.”
I’d known then that it wouldn’t happen, and it hadn’t.
I kept snapping beans, finally finishing and rinsing them. I’d just put them on to simmer with a piece of side meat when I heard a little noise at the front door. “Alice?” Duke whispered.
He was soaking wet, so I got him a towel, and since neither one of us wanted to wake Mom, we sat on the front porch, sheltered from the rain. It was cooler there anyway. I reckoned he’d left work early on a Friday afternoon. He was the boss; he was allowed. He’d brought me a giant-sized plastic cup of Coca-Cola from the little restaurant next to his gas station. “Cats and dogs,” he said, drying his hair. It was darker than Cindy’s or mine. He really didn’t look much like either of us girls: shorter, more important looking. His dark, hooded eyes had the same intensity I’d seen in portraits of smoldering Napoleons. He’d always intimidated me, but I’d fought it for years. And I’d have to do it again today if I was going to go home.
“How is she?” He dropped the towel on the porch floor. The boards had lost all their paint and warped.
“The same.” A puff of rain-cooled breeze sneaked up the back of my neck and tried to dry my sweat. “You don’t really think she’s going to get any better, do you?”
He lifted a shoulder. Sweat patches blended with the rain to darken his shirt.
“Because she’s not. Alzheimer’s doesn’t work that way.”
He just looked at me. Sadness pulled his mouth down until his lips thinned with it. I wished he’d be more realistic.
“Have you ever heard her talk about Daddy out drinking with some woman?” I sucked a mouthful of Coke up the straw. “She asks Cindy to go find him.” I stared out at the rain. It was beating Mom’s hydrangeas to death. “Of course sometimes I’m Cindy. Or Aunt Belinda. Even you.”
Duke looked deep into my eyes. He had a habit of doing that. “There was a woman. And some drinking. You missed all that.”
“Why didn’t anybody ever tell me about that? Who was she?”
“There’s things you don’t know.” His eyes hardened. “You were gone by then. She was a Donaldson. Lived down the highway near Prebble. She was divorced.” He raised his nose a little at the word, like it smelled bad. At least I hadn’t committed that crime, although none of them knew I’d lived with a man for over three years. I’d never figured out whether divorce or living in sin would’ve been worse in their eyes. Didn’t plan to find out, either.
I shook my head. “She’d send Cindy down there to bring Dad home? She was just a kid, wasn’t she?”
Duke nodded. “I did it a few times. Dad would be all liquored up and would cry all the way home saying how sorry he was and that he’d never go back to that wicked woman. And he wouldn’t for a while.” He stared through the rain past the pine trees and the old maple, past the redbuds I still missed every spring. “Ever so often Dad would get itchy again, I reckon, and take off. Mom started sending Cindy because it shamed him more to have his daughter catch him out; besides, I was working full time then. He finally quit going. Or else that woman turned him away.” He shrugged like it didn’t matter any more, and I guess it didn’t.
Hunching his shoulders forward, he asked, “Have you thought any more about staying? I know you don’t want to, but I can’t see any other way. Cindy has a family to take care of. And a job.”
“Of course there’s a way. The nursing home over at Ashton has an empty bed. I went over there yesterday and talked to them.”
He acted like I’d slapped him. “I can’t believe you did that. No kin of mine is ever going to a nursing home. I’ve told you that.”
I started arguing. “It’s real clean, smells okay too. They have activities for them and hymn-singing on Sundays. Mom would like that. The state would pay for it, no cost to us. The patients get the medicines they need and nutritious food. It’s a nice place for a nursing home.”
“Ain’t no home to it.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what on earth we’ll do if you won’t stay, but I’ll not let you put her in one of those places. I swear it, Alice.”
His words didn’t surprise me. I thought about my little townhome up in the city and wondered if they’d had rain too. I’d been worrying about the petunias out on my balcony, the geraniums by my front door. I thought about how up there I could walk to the grocery or drive ten minutes to the library and post office. The week before I’d come to Mom’s I’d put up new curtains in my bedroom. I’d hardly had time to enjoy them. And then there was that trip I was planning. The airport was only twenty minutes away.
Duke was doing some arguing too. “You’re retired now. You need to be back home, around your kin as you get older. You could sell your place and move in here with Mom. We’d be together.” He took a breath. “I know you’ve always been itching to travel, and you could. We could spell you for a couple of weeks now and then so you could go. And you’d have the money for it if you sold that little apartment.”
“Townhome,” I murmured.
In my head, a massive metal door was trying really hard to slam shut. I thought about how many times over the last three weeks I’d wished my mother dead, that some merciful cardiac episode would carry us all to freedom. I felt shame for thinking like that, but guilt had been my shadow for so long that I hardly noticed it anymore. I looked up at the thinning clouds. There was a little blue patch fighting the clouds over the mountain. The rain was nothing but a drizzle now, dripping onto the cracked sidewalk leading to the driveway. My car sat there, shiny with rain. I’d filled the tank yesterday, but not at Duke’s station.
“It’s your turn now,” Duke said in a low voice.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with taking turns.”
He stood up. “It doesn’t. Never has.”
I needed to get back in the house. Mom would sense that the rain had stopped and wake up. She might be playing in the knife drawer or taking lamps apart. I’d caught her at both. My body felt as heavy as the rain-drenched maple leaves. “I’ll stay one more week,” I said.
Duke gave me a hard look, and I met it with one of my own. I wasn’t sure right then what I’d do next Friday, but he seemed to know.